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A year in review: The Hornets’ rookie class

There is not a single photograph of PJ Washington, the Martin twins, and Jalen McDaniels on the entire internet. Apologies to Jalen and Caleb for being left out of the lead art.

Charlotte Hornets draft picks Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Hornets used to draft somewhat poorly. The only Rich Cho draft pick to make a substantial impact on the success of the team in his seven-year tenure was Kemba Walker (I guess you could argue for Cody Zeller), and we all know how that turned out. But with Mitch Kupchak at the helm, things are different. Over the last two drafts, he’s built a nucleus of Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Cody Martin, Caleb Martin, and Jalen McDaniels, along with Arnoldas Kulboka, a Lithuanian currently playing in Spain’s Liga ACB. Quietly, Charlotte has assembled one of the most intriguing young cores of any rebuilding team in the NBA.

On the night of the draft, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Hornets fans were not thrilled with the team’s selections. PJ Washington wasn’t a flashy pick, and it appeared as if the Hornets were going for another heralded, successful blue-blood college player. Cody Martin was regarded as the worse of the two Martins — though Caleb was signed as an undrafted free agent — and he was an early second-round pick. Jalen McDaniels was mostly an unknown, and his slight frame scared people off.

As usual, we the fans were not correct, and the NBA front office employees were. The Hornets really couldn’t have asked for more value out of the picks they made. PJ Washington missed a handful of games with a sprained ankle around Christmastime, but besides that he produced at a high level for a rookie on a consistent basis. Cody’s tenacious defense and court vision at his size will keep him in the league for years, even without a jump shot. Caleb and Jalen McDaniels spent most of their season with the G-League Greensboro Swarm, but showed immediate promise upon their call-up near the end of the season.

PJ Washington

PJ Washington was a 38.4% shooter from beyond the arc during two seasons at Kentucky, which is good, but it was on 1.4 attempts per game. It’s safe to say that his 27-point debut where he made 7-of-11 3-pointers was a mild surprise, and he carried that accuracy throughout the season, sitting at 37.4% 3PT on 4.0 3PA per game before the NBA’s hiatus. PJ is an efficient inside-out scoring big that isn’t a negative on the defensive end, a rarity in today’s NBA. He’s not a shot-blocking or playmaking threat and his 64.7 FT% is a tad low, which are his biggest “weaknesses” in a strong, versatile game. In a pinch, he can play the small-ball center role, and as he matures physically that role will only become more prominent. It would be a complete shock to me if he doesn’t make All-Rookie first-team. Mitch Kupchak showed us why, sometimes, it’s the right move to make the “boring” pick and just take the best basketball player on the board. He came into the season expecting to be a reserve and then started all but one of the games he played in. PJ is a damn good building block for Charlotte.

Cody Martin

I kind of regret having the idea to put each player’s per-game stat line in this article, because it doesn’t help Cody Martin at all. He was really helpful this year, but he has a lot of work to do on the offensive end. He has some sneaky hops, he makes smart cuts off-ball, runs well in transition and his vision and decision-making are good. He was the de facto second-unit playmaker after Malik Monk was suspended. But, he can’t get his own shot against anybody, and he’s a pretty bad shooter at this point. There’s no sugar-coating it; Cody only shoots 23.8% on 3-point shots that are considered “wide open” (closest defender is 6+ feet away) per stats.nba.com, and 20.4% of his attempts qualify as “wide open.” Regardless, there is a place on the Hornets roster for a guy who brings it on defense night-in and night-out. He’s 6’ 5” with a 6’ 10.25” wingspan, quick hands, and a strong lower body despite a lean 192-pound frame. He can defend positions 1-3 right now, and that could become 1-4 as he develops some strength. His defensive awareness is great, you always see him pointing things out to teammates and rotating/closing out with his hands up. His 1.0 DBPM led the team (Joe Chealey’s 1.7 DBPM is “first,” but in 33 total minutes). At the least, there’s a role-playing wing defender in Cody Martin, and things get really interesting if the jumper comes around.

Jalen McDaniels

Jalen McDaniels was surprisingly good in his limited appearances with the big club in Charlotte. His 3-point accuracy improved substantially from his career 29.8% mark at San Diego State to 37.5% in 16 games as a Hornet. It’s actually kind of funny; every single one of Jalen’s 3-point attempts was catch-and-shoot. He didn’t take a single pull-up or movement 3-pointer all season. He knows his strengths, and that is spotting up and letting it fly. He’ll have to mix a lot more into his game to continue developing, particularly some post play and driving ability, but he filled his role as a sharpshooting help-side defender nicely before the season was put on hiatus. His frame is still a problem that surfaces often when moved off of his spot by players considerably smaller than he is. There’s a lot to like in Jalen’s combination of 3-point shooting, length, mobility, and shot-blocking. A full season of consistent playing time at the NBA level for him will be fun to watch.

Caleb Martin

Last but not least, we have the other half of the Crash Bros, Caleb Martin. He was a scorer in college, averaging 19.2 points per game in his senior season at Nevada, he was a scorer in the G-League with the Swarm, averaging 21.3 points per game, and guess what? He’s not really a “scorer” with the Hornets, but he adapted to what they need him to do and that’s a positive. He scored a career-high 23 points against Atlanta and followed that up with a 19-point showing versus Miami before sports were cancelled. He converted on 20-of-37 3PA in 18 games as a Hornet, though he only shot 16.7% on pull-up 3-pointers, rendering him mostly a spot-up shooting threat now, but he has some wiggle in his handle and it’s reasonable to assume he’ll develop as an off-the-dribble scorer as he continues to iron out his jumper with skills coach Omar Khanani. He doesn’t have his brother’s defensive awareness and isn’t nearly as impactful on that end, but he does play with a comparable amount of fire. He looks to at least be a player the Hornets will keep around for the coming season, and that’s all you can ask for from an undrafted free agent. The Hornets’ future has been Fully Martinized, shoutout to Eric Collins.

Side note: Hoo, boy, do I miss Eric Collins. I’d give anything for a live “miles BRIDGESSS!!!!!!!” right now.

I’m confident in this group, and I know a lot of you guys are, too. Whether they all pan out in Charlotte is one thing, but each player at least showed something that could translate into a long-lasting skill in the NBA. “Potential” is what the Hornets are looking for, and there is “potential” in all of the Hornets’ rookies.